Article Content for The Alamo

History


For over 300 years, the former mission now known as the Alamo has been a crossroads of history.  Having existed under six flags of independent nations and served as a garrison for five different armies, the Alamo has a rich history and a heritage to inspire all Texans.

To view an interactive chronology of Alamo history, please click here.

Early History: Prehistoric - 1699

Before the arrival of European explorers beginning in the 1500’s, the lands eventually known as Northern Mexico and Texas were populated by tribes of indigenous people that represented many different kinds of cultures. 

Because written history was not a tradition in these tribes, information about these indigenous people is imprecise.  Most were hunter-gathers, a nomadic way of life that moved with the seasons in search of food.  However, the introduction of agriculture, horses and domesticated livestock would later alter many of these indigenous cultures.

Traditionally, the Indians who lived in the area now known as South Texas are loosely grouped under the linguistic category called “Coahuiltecans”.  These native groups often ranged the area of Northern Mexico known as Coahuila as well as the South Texas Plains.   Men often hunted bison, rabbit or deer, while women and children gathered the majority of their food including fruits, nuts, seeds and beans.  In South Texas, the mesquite bean pod was a staple.

Before the establishment of the Spanish missions, several Indian tribes were associated with the San Antonio area.  Indians from the Payaya, Sama, Pachaque and several other tribes ranged in the area and would eventually enter the mission later known as the Alamo.

Much of what is known about the inhabitants of this region during this early period is derived from the experiences of European explorers like Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spaniard who shipwrecked on the Texas coast in 1528.  Cabeza De Vaca and several companions wandered the area and lived amongst the local Indians for several years, eventually walking over two thousand miles to Mexico City.  This amazing journey provides a vivid description of indigenous life in early Texas.

Yet it was French exploration of Texas in the 1600’s that would lead Spain to solidify their territorial gains in Texas. French explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, landed at Matagorda Bay in 1685, giving the French a claim to Texas and eventually prompting Spain to establish a permanent mission system in the frontier region.

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The Mission Period  1700-1793

The story of the Alamo begins with the establishment of the Mission San Francisco de Solano near the Rio Grande River in 1700.  There, Father Antonio de San Buenaventura y Olivares worked to convert many of the Coahuiltecan bands to Catholicism as the official religion of Spain.  After Olivares traveled to Texas with an expedition in 1709, he was struck by the San Antonio area and later recommended it to the Spanish viceroy, Marques de Valero, as a site for a mission waypoint on the road to Spanish settlements in East Texas.

In 1718, after many Indians had left Mission Solano, Olivares moved the mission’s belongings to the new site near present day San Antonio.  He named the new mission in honor of the Saint Anthony de Padua and the Spanish viceroy who had approved his plan: San Antonio de Valero.

While the mission changed locations several times, the present location was chosen in 1724.   The foundation of the stone mission church was laid in 1744. Until it was secularized nearly 70 years later, San Antonio de Valero was home to Spanish missionaries and their Indian converts.   It was the first of five Spanish missions in the San Antonio area. 

A Spanish mission was much more than a religious institution.  Its purpose was to take an indigenous population and convert them not only to Catholicism, but to the Spanish way of life.  In establishing the missions in Texas, the Spanish hoped to create a self-sufficient population that would continue to exist and grow as loyal Spanish subjects, thereby staving off any involvement of foreign powers like France.  Indian converts were taught farming, livestock raising, blacksmithing, carpentry, stone work, and weaving. 

Indians and missionaries at San Antonio de Valero also found protection at the mission. Encroachment by warlike Apaches from the west and Comanches from the north meant local Coahuiltecan tribes were under constant threat.  Thus, mission life brought protection from other indigenous people as well as shelter and a more stable food supply.  It also gave them access to two important technological developments of the period: firearms and horses.  On June 30, 1745, an Apache attack on the nearby civil town of San Fernando was driven off with the aid of 100 mission converts from Valero.

Mission San Antonio de Valero was originally overseen by the Franciscan College of Querétaro but taken over by the Franciscan College of Zacatecas in 1773 after the expulsion of the Jesuits from New Spain (1767).  The void left by the departure of the Jesuits from New Spain was filled by reassigning the missionaries from other orders who remained in the various Spanish colonies.

By the late 1700’s much had changed on the Texas frontier.  Indian convert populations had dwindled at most of the Spanish missions, sometimes from increased mortality due to new European-introduced illnesses.  The rich mission lands, cultivated over a century, were also coveted by local populations.  As a result, by 1793, Mission San Antonio de Valero was secularized and control passed to local authorities.  Much of the mission lands and goods were distributed amongst the Spanish locals and remaining Indian residents.   The other San Antonio missions would meet a similar fate.

The former mission, with its convento, adobe houses and an incomplete stone church, would soon play host to the first of many military garrisons.

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Decline of Spanish Rule: 1794-1821

In response to increased French and American threats from nearby Louisiana, Spain mobilized its military into the Texas frontier after the turn of the century.  Since San Antonio de Valero was now secularized, the Spanish military occupied the old mission compound and converted it into a frontier outpost and military garrison.

The first military reinforcement to arrive was a troop of presidial soldiers called La Segunda Compañía Volante de San Carlos de Parra, the Second Flying Company of San Carlos de Parras. 

Also called “The Alamo Company” because of its hometown of Alamo de Parras located south of the Rio Grande, the hundred-strong man company and their families arrived in force in 1803.  The mission’s old convento became a barracks for the soldiers. Spanish authorities even established a military hospital on the building’s second story  -- the first hospital in Texas. 

Within a short period of time people were calling the old mission the Pueblo de la Compañía del Alamo.  Eventually, the compound was just called the Alamo and would be home for the company for thirty-two years (1803-1835). 

La Segunda Compañía Volante de San Carlos de Parras was well suited for frontier service.  Designated a “flying company,” soldiers of the unit were mounted and armed with a lance (lanza), short sword (espada ancha), carbine (escopeta), and pistol (pistola).  For protection against arrows, they sometimes wore a padded leather vest (cuera) and carried a thick leather shield (adarga). 

The company’s original duties included protecting San Antonio and the area around it from Indian raiders as well as escorting travelers, merchants, and officials to places like Monterrey, Monclova, and Saltillo.   As the 1800’s progressed, their members were called on to intercept, capture or turn back encroaching Americans who were increasingly showing interest in Texas.  Momentous events, however, tested the loyalty of the Alamo Company.

Father Miguel Hidalgo’s 1810 anti-Spanish revolt spread across Mexico and extended into Texas.  Although they were supposed to battle the rebels, some members of the Alamo Company switched sides and joined forces with the Mexican revolutionaries and American volunteers  -- or filibusters – who attempted to transform Texas into an independent republic. 

In August 1813, a Spanish royalist army crushed the filibuster revolt at the Battle of Medina.  Many of the rebels, including members of the company, were forced to flee for their lives. With order restored, the company resumed its traditional role of fighting Indians and interdicting interlopers.  However, American filibusters would continue to threaten Texas for several more years.

In a twist of fate, a young Mexican officer serving in the Spanish army – Lieutenant Antonio López de Santa Anna – helped crush the rebel forces at Medina.  The future President and dictator of Mexico was even cited for gallantry for his actions at the battle.

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Mexican Texas: 1822-1835

When Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1821, the Alamo remained a military outpost.  The soldiers of the Alamo Company shifted their allegiance to the newly formed independent nation. 

The new Republic of Mexico inherited the old Spanish problems of holding and governing Texas.  The root of the trouble remained the region’s sparse population.  A hundred years of Spanish settlement had resulted in only three permanent communities of any size: Nacogdoches, Presidio La Bahía (Goliad), and San Antonio de Béxar.  In fact, Texas’ population had actually decreased from 1810 to 1820 due to the period of turmoil caused by the decade long struggle of independence from Spain.  Desperate to turn the situation around, the nation’s leaders turned to immigration from the United States as a way to bolster Texas’ dwindling population. 

The policy would be called colonization.  The Mexican government granted contracts to land agents called empresarios.  It would be the responsibility of these men to screen prospective applicants to make sure that only law-abiding men and women would be allowed to settle in Texas.  One of the first to plan large scale Anglo colonization of Texas was Moses Austin, a Connecticut businessman.  In 1820, Austin died just as his plans were being approved. His son, Stephen F. Austin carried on his work and became the first empresario of Texas.

Although the system got off to a good start, the sheer number of Americans wanting to move to Texas quickly overwhelmed the Mexican territory.  Within a space of only five years, from 1823 to 1828, the immigrant population had grown from about 500 to more than 30,000.  Problems for both the colonists and the Mexican government lay ahead. 

In 1824, Mexico had adopted a constitution that established a federal style government for the new nation.  Mexico City was designated the site of the national capital.  The nation itself was divided into eighteen states, each with its own governor and legislature.  Because it lacked sufficient inhabitants to meet the requirements for statehood, Texas was designated the Department of Texas and placed within the state of Coahuila y Tejas.  Native born Texans (Tejanos) felt slighted and quickly began calling for separate statehood for Texas.   Many Tejano elites supported colonization because increasing Texas’ population seemed to be the surest path to statehood.  The incoming settlers took up the demand for Texas’ statehood within the Mexican Federal Republic. 

On April 6, 1830 the Mexican government attempted to stop the flood of immigration by prohibiting the settlement of emigrants from the United States.  The result only fueled the flame of revolution in Texas.

In 1833, a former military governor named Antonio López de Santa Anna rose to power in Mexico City and was elected president as a Federalist.  The following year, Santa Anna switched his allegiance to the Centralists.  Retaining his position as Mexico’s president, a newly assembled Congress of Centralist supporters provided him extra legal powers in order to combat growing Federalist opposition in states like Zacatecas, Yucatan, and Coahuila y Texas.  He became absolute ruler of Mexico.

In Béxar, one of the last official duties of the Alamo Company was a mission to retrieve a small cannon loaned by the Mexican government to the town of Gonzales for protection against hostile Comanche.  Commanded by Francisco Castañeda, the column encountered resistance from the colonists who refused to give it up.  They taunted the soldados with the call to “Come and Take It!”  On October 2, 1835, the colonists fired on Castañeda’s men, igniting the Texas Revolution.

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Texas Revolution: 1835-1836

San Antonio de Béxar had long been an important place in Texas.  Not only was it home to a military garrison, it was a crossroads and center of commerce.  By the early 1830s, the town’s population had grown to nearly 2,500.  With the outbreak of revolt in Coahuila y Tejas, San Antonio even resumed its old role as the capital of Texas. 

San Antonio experienced two sieges and battles during the Texas Revolution. 

The first, the Siege and Battle of Béxar, began in late October 1835 after the incident in Gonzales when angry colonists and Tejanos followed the retreating Alamo company back to San Antonio in the early stage of the revolution.  When the Texian siege of the town stalled, soldier and empresario Ben Milam rallied a force on December 5 that fought their way into the center of San Antonio.  After a bloody five-day, house-to-house fight, the Texians took control of the town and Mexican General Martin Perfecto de Cos surrendered the town and the public property it held.  Thus, the rebels gained control of San Antonio and the Alamo. 

On February 23, 1836, after a grueling winter march, General Antonio López de Santa Anna and his army arrived at San Antonio to put down the frontier rebellion.  The Texian rebels withdrew across the San Antonio River into the safety of the old fortified mission known as the Alamo.  As Mexican forces surrounded the Alamo, Santa Anna raised the red flag indicating that no quarter would be given to the traitors inside the mission.  Alamo commander William Barret Travis began writing desperate pleas for help, including the famous “Victory or Death” letter sent out on February 24. 

While the Alamo was under siege, the provisional Texas government organized at Washington-on-the-Brazos.  On March 2, the convention declared independence and the Republic of Texas was born, at least on paper. The Alamo’s garrison showed its support for independence from Mexico by sending its own delegates to the convention. 

While they were unaware that Texas had declared independence, the roughly 200 Alamo defenders stayed at their post waiting on help from the settlements. Among them were lawyers, doctors, farmers and a former congressman and famous frontiersman from Tennessee named David Crockett.  While the youngest was 16 and the oldest 75, most defenders were in their twenties. Most were Anglo, but there were a handful of native Tejano defenders as well. Legendary knife fighter and land speculator James Bowie was in command before falling ill and sharing duties with Travis.

Several women and children were inside the Alamo, including 15-month-old Angelina Dickenson.  Just before the final battle, Travis placed his ring around her neck, knowing she would likely be spared.  One of the last messages from the Alamo was a note from Travis asking friends to take care of his young son Charles. 

The final attack came before dawn on March 6, 1836.  As Mexican troops charged toward the Alamo in the pre-dawn darkness, defenders rushed to the walls and fired into the darkness.  Travis raced to the north wall but was soon killed.  Bowie was most likely killed in his bed, while reports differ as to Crockett’s death.  Many believe Crockett survived the initial attack but was put to death by Mexican soldiers soon afterwards.

Mexican soldiers breached the north wall and flooded into the compound.  The fierce battle centered on the old church, where defenders made a last stand.  The battle lasted about 90 minutes.

After the battle – which Santa Anna described as a “small affair” – Mexican troops continued their march into the Texian settlements while rebel forces retreated towards Louisiana.

By April 21, Texian General Sam Houston noticed Santa Anna had split his forces and backed himself into a corner along Buffalo Bayou near present day Houston.  Houston seized the opportunity and attacked, surprising the larger Mexican force.  In a bloody, eighteen-minute battle, Texian forces defeated the Mexican troops, captured Santa Anna and achieved independence to the cries of “Remember the Alamo!” 

Upon the signing of the Treaty of Velasco on May 14, 1836 the revolution was over and the Republic of Texas began in earnest.  However, the conflict between Texas and Mexico would continue for the next ten years.

After two sieges and a bloody battle, many buildings in the Alamo mission compound were damaged, burnt or pockmarked by heavy cannonade.  Before he marched east in pursuit of Houston’s small army, Santa Anna assigned Colonel Juan José Andrade and his troops the task of repairing and occupying the Alamo.  The Mexican Army maintained control of San Antonio until May 1836. That month the Mexican garrison received orders to demolish the Alamo before they withdrew. They knocked down some of the outer walls of the compound, including the log wall known as Crockett's Palisade, so it could not be easily refortified by the Texians.

Many of the wounded Mexican soldiers had been housed in San Antonio following the battle. Several Texian doctors captured with Fannin's command were sent to San Antonio to help tend Santa Anna's wounded, who were then evacuated in May and June during the withdrawal.

Texian forces under Captain Juan N. Seguín entered San Antonio on June 4, 1836. Seguín reported that eighteen Mexican soldiers, under the command of Lieutenant Don Francisco Castañada, were present when he entered the town. Relations between the two groups were peaceful and Castañada and his men withdrew two days later. The Texians evacuated the town several weeks later once it became clear that the new government was unable to send reinforcements.

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Under The Republic: 1837-1845

A commonly held misconception regarding the Texas Revolutions is that Sam Houston’s victory over Antonio López de Santa Anna ended the fighting between Mexico and Texas.  In reality, Mexico refused to give up its claim to Texas as well as the additional territory claimed by the new government of the Republic of Texas.  Cross border invasions – or “expeditions” – conducted by both sides further inflamed hostilities.  Both nations, however, lacked the money or resources necessary to hand the other a decisive and final defeat. 

On March 5, 1842, Colonel Ráfael Vásquez and 700 Mexican soldiers invaded San

Antonio. Although in control of the town for only a few days, Vásquez reminded Texans that Mexico still laid claim to Texas. Shocked by the audacity of the raid, Texans readied themselves for war against their old foe, Santa Anna.

Unsatisfied with the results of the Vásquez invasion, Santa Anna ordered a larger raid on San Antonio.  On September 11, 1842, General Adrian Woll and 1,200 Mexican troops surprised the town and captured fifty-two prisoners, many of whom were prominent men who had recently arrived to participate in district court hearings.  On September 22, despite his orders to the contrary, Woll allowed himself to be drawn into a battle with the Texans who had gathered along Salado Creek just east of town.  He retreated to the Rio Grande the following day, taking his important prisoners with him. 

The period of the Republic of Texas proved to be especially trying for San Antonio and the Alamo.  With San Antonio located on a war-torn frontier, the Alamo was virtually abandoned. 

Republic of Texas troops abandoned and reoccupied the old mission several times.  Often, the Texas troops pillaged the Alamo for souvenirs, including carving up parts of the wall and the religious statues left behind from the mission era.

After almost 10 years as an independent republic – and despite being war-weary and nearly bankrupt – Texas was still a coveted prize for annexation by the U.S.  By February 1845, to stave off British involvement in Texas, the U.S. Congress authorized a resolution to join Texas to the United States.  After a year of negotiations and diplomatic wrangling, Texas entered the Union on December 29.  On February 19, 1846, Texas accepted the agreement in a ceremony in Austin at which the Anson Jones, last President of Texas, declared “The Republic of Texas is no more.”

Many in both countries correctly believed that annexation would transform what had been Texas’ war with Mexico into the United States’ war with Mexico.  Accordingly, since October, U.S. troops had been gathering in San Antonio and throughout the Texas border region in expectation of military response from Mexico.  Their presence, among other factors, would trigger the U.S. Mexican War in 1846 that would forever define Texas and the American Southwest.

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The Army Moves In: 1846-1877

San Antonio de Béxar and the Alamo greatly benefitted from annexation and statehood.  Centrally located and vital to Texas, San Antonio was already seen as an important civic and military asset.

After Texas joined the Union, the annexation treaty transferred all Texas forts to the U.S. Army. In San Antonio, the U.S. Army decided the old abandoned Alamo mission and fort would be a good location for a regional quartermaster depot to supply the forts guarding the expansive Texas frontier. 

The Army transformed the abandoned mission.  The old convent building or Long Barrack, had been rebuilt and converted into a warehouse for the Quartermaster Department.

Despite legal battles with the Catholic Archdiocese, which proved its claim of ownership to the old mission property, the U.S. Army would have nearly a thirty year long presence at the Alamo. In 1850, when quartermaster operations expanded to the old Alamo church, the Catholic Church received $150 a month in rent from the Army.

Rejecting a plan to demolish the old church in favor of a new warehouse, Army officials instead repaired it, filling up old colonial arches inside the church to square off doors and adding windows.  Army engineers faced a problem in elevating the front of the church to cover a new pitched wooden roof – the first roof ever for the old building.  Their solution?  A Campanulate, or arched parapet designed by architect John M. Fries was added to the front of the church.  The Alamo gained its world-famous rounded “hump”.

The army’s presence brought a sense of security back to San Antonio and the town flourished as a military and commercial hub.  Ranchers and farmers quickly realized that there was a stable market for their products, and businesses sprung up nearby, such as the brewery started by William Menger.  Menger would eventually expand his boardinghouse into a hotel in 1859.

During this period, the area around the Alamo was developed by Texas hero Samuel Maverick into a planned community called “Alamo City”.  Maverick and his family lived on the site of one of the old mission-era Indian quarters at the northwest corner of the compound.

Yet, the Alamo would again change military hands one more time.  In 1861, when Texas voted to secede from the Union and join the Confederate States of America, U.S. troops under Gen. David Twiggs were ordered out of the Alamo and San Antonio.  Under threat of force by Texas volunteer troops, the Alamo was surrendered to Confederate forces without a shot on February 16.  The Alamo would remain in Confederate hands until the end of the war in 1865, when U.S. Army troops returned.

By 1876, San Antonio had grown so significantly that the Army needed larger facilities.  Soon after, the U.S. Army relocated to the new Fort Sam Houston to the north and left the Alamo for the last time.

Ahead was a period of intense change, commercial development and an uncertain future.

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Warehouse to Shrine: 1878 -1905

With the departure of the U.S. Army, the remaining grounds of the Alamo compound were divided and sold for various uses.  The Catholic Church claimed ownership of the remaining mission buildings, while the city maintained ownership of the roads that passed through the mission grounds in front of the old church.  The Galera, or Low Barrack, served as the “gate” to the Alamo until the Church sold it to the city in 1871 so it could be demolished to make way for a grand new public plaza.  The mission compound lost its southern border and a vital part of its identity.

By the 1880’s, much of the west wall, originally comprised of Indian quarters and used as a headquarters by Texians in the ’36 battle, was developed into the “Crockett Block” of multi-story stone buildings designed by world renowned architect Alfred Giles.  Giles’ firm would later design the vaulted ceiling for the Alamo Church.

In 1877, when the Army moved out, the Catholic Church sold the Long Barrack, or convento, to a French businessman named Honore Grenet, who drastically renovated the old structure, added wooden porches, balconies – and even fake cannon turrets reminiscent of a medieval castle – and operated a museum and general store.  After his death in 1883, the building was sold to the Hugo & Schmeltzer Company, a wholesale grocery firm that expanded its use as a general merchandise store.

The Catholic Church also rented the Alamo church to Grenet to continue its use as a warehouse.  Grenet even has his name painted across the curved parapet added by the Army decades before. Newspaper accounts maintain that during its use as a storehouse, hog carcasses hung in the cool, dark interior of the old stone church.

By the time Grenet died, with the fiftieth anniversary of the 1836 battle approaching, the public consciousness about the Alamo church was changing.  In 1883 legislative session, Sam Houston’s son Temple, then a state senator, authored a bill directing the state to purchase the church from the Catholic diocese for $20,000.  The transfer took place in May, and the City of San Antonio was given authority by the state to hire a custodian.  By 1890, a city police substation was wedged onto the southwest external wall of the church.

When the owner of the convent, or Long Barrack, discussed plans to sell the building to make way for a new hotel in 1903, Adina de Zavala, a San Antonio schoolteacher and local preservationist, started a public campaign to save the historic building. She secured a promise from the owner of the Schmeltzer Company for a chance to buy the property for $75,000. Looking for money, she visited the nearby Menger Hotel in hopes of stirring up opposition to possible competitors, but instead happened upon Clara Driscoll, the wealthy daughter of a San Jacinto veteran and successful South Texas rancher.  Passionate about preservation, Driscoll joined De Zavala and was able to advance the money to buy the old structure on behalf of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT), a heritage group dedicated to honoring the men and battlefields of the 1836 revolution.

Two years later, the Texas Legislature appropriated the money to reimburse Driscoll and the DRT for the Alamo property.  The bill, sponsored by the President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s father Sam Ealy Johnson, entrusted the convento and church to the DRT as custodians to maintain the property as a shrine to Texas liberty. 

After a dispute arose between Driscoll and De Zavala regarding competing visions for the Alamo, Adina barricaded herself in the convento briefly in 1908 to prevent its destruction.

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The Modern Era:  1906 to present

In 1914, a new silent film premiered at the Royal Theatre a few blocks from the Alamo.  The Siege and Fall of the Alamo is the first feature film about the legendary battle of 1836. It is also the first and only such film shot at the Alamo. At a cost of $35,000 and with two thousand extras, the film was a hit.

As the centennial of the battle approached in 1936, the entire Alamo complex was renovated, expanded and converted into a park-like setting as a memorial to those who died.  A Centennial Museum was built just behind the Alamo church, and soon found use as a gift shop whose proceeds still support daily operations.

During the Cold War of the 1960’s the Alamo served as a convenient metaphor for freedom in two very different films.  John Wayne’s epic The Alamo, released in1960, was the largest movie about the 1836 battle to date, and provided a generation of Americans with a passionate, but historically inaccurate, version of the Alamo story.   At the end of the decade, the satire Viva Max! portrayed the comedic attempt of a fumbling Mexican general to invade Texas and retake the Alamo.  It is one of the only other Alamo films to contain footage shot on the Alamo grounds.

In 1968, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas opened a new museum in the Long Barrack, or convento, finally putting the oldest building on the Alamo grounds back into use.  The Long Barrack Museum remains open today.

In 2011, the Texas Legislature granted authority over the Alamo to the Texas General Land Office.  The GLO signed an agreement to keep the DRT in charge of the daily operation of the Alamo.  A private, non-profit, The Alamo Endowment, was created at the direction of the GLO to assist with large-scale fundraising at the old mission.

In 2013, the Alamo also saw the return of a Texas treasure.  By a joint project of the GLO, The Alamo and the Texas State Library and Archive Commission, the original “Victory or Death” letter penned by William B. Travis in 1836 was returned to the Alamo for the 177th anniversary of the siege and battle.  Over 24,000 attended the exhibit, some waiting in lines up to 5 hours long.

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